Socialist Electoral Conference Talks Tactics

Gabriel Pierre reports back from a new unity project's first conference

A small step forward

Fifteen people, myself included, attended the Socialist Electoral Alliance’s first national videoconference on August 6th. The SEA is an initiative of the Campaign for a United Socialist Party (CUSP), although the relationship between the two is not yet fully demarcated.

Saturn Concentric from CUSP opened the proceedings by posing the need to have a conversation about joint socialist electoral campaigns in the wake of Kshama Sawant’s (Socialist Alternative) successful bid for Seattle city council. He emphasized the ‘socialist’ part, explaining that while “there also needs to be a conversation about green and independent left candidates,” people on the ground have a “visceral reaction” to the very word socialism, that the label is associated with “uncompromising class struggle” in people’s minds. He further noted that socialism is viewed positively by a majority of American youth, making the need to be an openly organized current even more clear.

This kicked off a tactical discussion which took up nearly all of the conference. When the idea was floated that socialists should concentrate on running for small offices, both to circumvent undemocratic ballot access laws at higher levels and to aid in building local movements, I cautioned against a slip into the “sewer socialism” practiced by the 20th century Socialist Party of America – abandoning major political issues in favor of narrow municipal horizons. There’s nothing wrong with running for city council or school board, but we must not be afraid to speak and organize on any major problem facing the class, whether they transcend county, state or even national borders. Most agreed.

Jorge Mújica, the Chicago Socialist Campaign’s candidate for Chicago Board of Aldermen1 and Matt Andrews, the (Vermont) Liberty Union Party’s candidate for U.S. Congress, shared their experiences. Comrade Mújica remarked that the Chicago Socialist Campaign, which formed as a local answer to the left’s sectarian divisions, is slowly morphing into something like a “territorial labor union.” The CSC has its doors open to all workers in the Windy City, whatever ward they live in, doing what it can to help with workplace and landlord disputes.

Because Chicago is ruled entirely by the Democratic Party, the local elite can’t hide behind Republican obstruction to explain why they never deliver for workers and the oppressed. Despite this somewhat unique feature of Chicago, Mújica said the kind of campaign they’re running can and should be replicated elsewhere; I can’t help but agree. We socialists should run wherever we can as socialists, rather than as Greens or left-populists, ditching sectarian divisions by uniting on the basis of a principled revolutionary program.

Mújica said having him in the city government would strengthen the socialists’ hand in their on-the-ground work, although he has no illusions of building ‘socialism in one city’ and has not shied away from international solidarity – his participation in Chicago’s mass anti-war demonstration last week is one example. Comrade Andrews spoke on his experience at the other end of the spectrum, saying that as a candidate for the highest legislative body in the land, he’s emphasized national and international policy questions.

After he mentioned how Vermont’s relatively favorable ballot access laws helped Liberty Union launch the campaign in the first place, I intervened to raise the need for far-reaching democratic demands. It’s not enough to ease the suffocating restrictions the two main capitalist parties put in place to divide power solely amongst themselves; we need to go further. Proportional representation would put an end to the gerrymandered legislatures and the ‘spoiler effect’ that capitalist politicians use to scare working people into voting for the ‘lesser evil’ rather than what they actually want.

The conference, while impeccably democratic in how it facilitated discussion, was light on concrete proposals. Being an inaugural conference, this was to be expected. The conference voted on how often to meet and whether or not to allow self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders to participate in the SEA, in the highly unlikely event he accepts a prior invitation sent to him. I cast my vote for regular (biweekly) meetings and to allow Senator Sanders, if only to castigate him for diluting the good name of socialism – its above-mentioned uncompromising class struggle – with his soft liberal, pro-capitalist domestic and pro-imperialist foreign policy.

All said, solid progress for an opening meeting. In sessions to come, I expect the SEA will see sharpened debate on whether it will lay the foundations for a reformist party or a revolutionary one that can transcend both opportunism and sectarianism. This isn’t an academic debate – for comrades who seek to get socialist candidates in office, emulating Seattle’s Kshama Sawant, do we also seek to emulate her sudden concessions to business and dropping of the referendum on the fight for $15?

(Originally published in The Red Vine.)

Notes:

1. The Chicago Board of Alderman is similar to a conventional city council, except that each alderman takes up an administrative position within his or her ward on top of the usual legislative functions. The Chicago Socialist Campaign is a new organization, backed by the Socialist Party USA, Solidarity, the ISO and independent socialists.

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